Mobile cellular communications is the leading edge of a revolution in the way people communicate. The concept of being in touch anywhere at any time will have profound implications for the way we live and work. Only lack of spectrum could dampen the potential worldwide impact of this new technology.
Cellular communications is a continuing success story. By the time of Inter Comm ’90 there will likely be about 9 million cellular subscribers worldwide. This is in an industry that only really got started in 1983.
It is easy to assume that this is just a case of having the right device available at the right time. This would miss the more fundamental implications of what is truly a revolution in communications.
The desire for mobility is ubiquitous and timeless. Communications while on the move has been the goal of every army, traveller or business person. Mobile communications in the modern sense is itself hardly new. Marconi by 1901 had already mounted a mobile aerial on a truck. The rapid evolution of ship to ship communications in the early part of the century is well known. The ‘walkie talkie’ phenomena has seen wide use in military and civilian applications.
But mobility with adequate capacity for voice and data operating in a way that duplicates the already familiar telephone is a very recent concept. It was only with the advent of cellular telephony that true personal mobility could become a reality for hundreds of millions of potential subscribers.
The concept of calling people rather than places is now widely accepted. The sociological and economic implications of this have yet to be the subject of serious study. In a paper published in Telecommunications Policy February 1990 by Jarratte & Coates, some attempt was made to assess the impact of this new communications mobility. They noted that:
• cellular can accelerate transactions leading to spontaneous transactions or the shortening of many kinds of negotiations;
• cellular can expand the scope of short term transactions even when these are as simple as buying a cinema ticket before arriving at the theatre;
• cellular gives more choices and more opportunities to do something immediately, e.g. participating in radio talk shows;
• cellular can stimulate certain kinds of actions and transactions even though some of these may be undesirable, e.g. crime;
• cellular can increase public and individual safety including monitoring of patients or children;
• cellular can alter our concepts of time and place for we no longer need to be in a particular location to transact business;
• cellular can raise expectations for employers, customers and even family may expect substantially increased expectations of performance from the cellular user;
• cellular can collapse both distance and time by improving contact and reducing isolation particularly for rural communities.
But if cellular is fundamentally altering the way we live and work, can cellular meet the expectations?
In Canada alone we predict over 1 million cellular phones by the end of 1993. Does the capacity exist to truly influence our future?
THE CELLULAR EVOLUTION
Cellular was designed to provide high quality and high availability mobile service. This comes at a price. Cell sites are expensive. If one includes the associated linkage costs through microwave or fibre, cell sites in Canadian dollars may range from $350,000 to $750,000.
Despite this the demand for coverage grows. Cellular is no longer an urban system.
For example, when Cantel completes its current build program we will cover approximately 87% of the population of Canada. Corridors are already a normal part of cellular development in Canada. With the continuous coverage that already exists from Windsor through to Halifax nearly half the country is capable of supporting a non stop phone conversation. Cantel is committed to providing coast to coast coverage in the next several years.
The constraining factor to cellular is not going to be capital although these systems are expensive. The limiting factor will be spectrum availability.
Cellular developed to make better use of the available spectrum but even today there are severe limitations on the service capability in Major Metropolitan Areas such as New York or Los Angeles. The technology is continuing to develop with the increasing cell splitting to create what are now referred to as microcells. In Toronto, for example, many of our cell sites are less than a kilometre in radius.
It is assumed that the conversion to digital which will take place in 1992 will be the answer. No question it will help but it may not be an easy answer to implement in the short run.
It will not be simple to convert users from their analogue system. Unlike the United Kingdom we have no parallel spectrum for digital and therefore the conversion must be gentle, i.e. by gradually replacing analogue radios with digital radios.
The phones themselves will have to be dual mode and this could mean that they will be heavier and possibly more costly. Customers will have little incentive to convert when they see little advantage. It will be interesting to see what incentives need to be provided to convert the customers so that the capacity potential of digital is realized.
However, this is not a pessimistic outlook. Rather it is one of timing. With the volume of new digital phones that will of course be sold, the size and cost will again fall dramatically. I would predict that the cost of digital cellular phones will move into the range predicted for the so called PCN phones. With its wide area coverage digital cellular will clearly be the system of preference for this decade.
THE PORTABLE EXPLOSION
In many of our major markets nearly half the phones we sell are now able to operate on batteries away from a vehicle. The portables or transportables will remove at last the idea that one calls a place rather than a person. A vehicle is still a place albeit a movable place.
Already the portable phones are the size that will fit easily in a pocket or purse. This is a change from the so called “bag’ phone of even a year or so ago that was essentially designed for a briefcase.
THE FIXED PORTABLE
This is not an oxymoron. There is a considerable market for over the air fixed cellular service. In fact in developing countries this may be the fastest way to revitalize an inadequate phone network. There is already a market for this in cottage country in Canada.
The implication of this is that cellular is a local loop substitute. Given the declining costs of servicing a customer with digital cellular, the cost in many cases may be less than hard wiring a location. I am sure that the implications are not lost on the wireline telephone companies.
CELLULAR IS ALL ABOUT NETWORK
What a cellular company really has is a vast network. In Cantel’s case we own or operate our own microwave and fibre system connecting well over 400 cell sites across the country. It only makes sense then to expand the use of the cellular network for other applications. Data over cellular is already common by linking PC’s to the network. Mobile fax is a boon to what we call the Mobile Office.
It only makes sense then to add a national paging operation to this national cellular network and indeed this is already underway in Cantel’s case. With the advent of wristwatch pagers and other advanced devices, I predict that paging will have a healthy future.
However, cellular is not the answer for all applications. Cantel has been authorised to use different frequencies for an over the air, digital packet switched network based on the Mobitex technology. This is an open protocol system optimized for data although it can handle voice. Cellular is of course optimized for voice although it can handle data but in a less cost effective form.
CELLULAR IN THE SKY
Obviously there are areas in which it will never be feasible to put the relatively expensive cell sites. To serve certain types of applications and the 15 or so percent of the population of Canada we can not serve with cellular, we are a small investor in the Canadian mobile satellite project known as MSAT. Although this will not be in operation until the mid 90’s, we see considerable future for this type of technology.
We are particularly excited about the plans by Motorola to implement a low orbit satellite network with direct communications to small hand held units. We do not view this as a competitor to cellular as it is doubtful if any satellite based system will provide adequate or cost effective coverage in urban areas with the shadowing problems of buildings. However, it could be an excellent means of covering a great deal of geography thereby conserving the cellular frequencies for applications requiring high voice quality, i.e. of the quality that would be produced by being close to a digital cell site.
We are also intrigued by the possibilities of the use of such satellites for air phone operations.
THE PCN MOVEMENT
While Cantel is actively involved in testing a variety of PCN-like devices for the Canadian market, it remains difficult to see why in the long run such technology could not better be handled by digital cellular. We are already installing microcells to serve only the floor of a building. Even on the street we will shortly be installing cell sites of only a few hundred metres radius. Digital or not such technological evolution is essential to cellular.
This does not mean that the cellular standards can stand still. Nor does it mean there may not be a market for cordless telephones of various capabilities. In fact, we are convinced that there is such a market and are actively pursuing it.
However, ultimately we must think of the consumer. The user is not going to be satisfied carrying around a pager, a PCN-like device for use in the office, a cellular phone for use when in motion, an air phone when in an aeroplane, etc. The convergence of mobile technology into a Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) is what the consumer will demand. This is what RACE in Europe and Vision 2000 in Canada are pushing toward. The consumer will simply insist on having just a single device that is sufficiently frequency agile to be able to be used at home, in the office, in a moving vehicle or in the air.
A CHALLENGE TO THE INDUSTRY
Several years ago I predicted that by the turn of the century or before there would be personal communications devices about the size of a pen. It should be little technological challenge to devise a microphone in one end of the pen phone with a speaker or even a removable earplug in the other end. The device is about suitable for a cellular frequency in terms of its length and is conveniently designed to reach from your ear to your mouth. It would of course be voice activated. With the proliferation of microcells, the battery should be a diminishing problem as at best it would only have to broadcast perhaps less than 100 metres.
Such a device coupled with the impending implementation of Personal Phone Numbers (PPN’s) would ensure that the mobile communications revolution reaches its potential of having everyone in touch any time they wish to be.
Dr. Hubert Ungerer, Director General of the Commission of European Communities, projected in a recent paper that by the year 2000 more than half of all voice traffic could be carried by mobile services. Other projections indicate that by that time over half the billion or so phones that will be installed worldwide will be mobile.
This is truly a revolution in world communications.